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Wheelchair-bound boy fulfills ballet dream in 'Nutcracker'

Stephen Hiatt Leonard
November 27, 1997
Web posted at: 5:01 p.m. EST (2201 GMT)

CHICAGO (CNN) -- Stephen Hiatt Leonard is only 9 years old, but he's already made ballet history.

Stephen was born with cerebral palsy, and is confined to a wheelchair. But determined and inspired by wheelchair dancers he saw in a Joffrey Ballet production last summer, the youngster auditioned earlier this year for a role in Joffrey Ballet of Chicago's production of "The Nutcracker."

His presence caught the company's open-minded artistic director off guard.

"To my amazement, in comes Steve. I was just taken aback, and thought, 'THIS is great!'" Gerald Arpino recalls.

Watch Stephen in "The Nutcracker"
icon 1 min., 30 sec. VXtreme video

Arpino, always willing to experiment, gave Stephen a part. Stephen's parents say Arpino's overture overwhelmed them.

"WOW, that's right, WOW. That's exactly how we felt," his parents, Lynn Hiatt and David Leonard, told CNN.

Arpino wrote Stephen into the story, choreographing a role that could accommodate the boy's wheelchair and the other dancers on stage. Stephen is now the first wheelchair dancer to perform with the company in a production of "The Nutcracker."

"I'm a party guest, in the party scene, which is in the very beginning," Stephen told CNN.

The performance

When opening night rolled around, Stephen made a request most kids could appreciate. He asked his dad not to cry, because "you'll embarrass me."

The tears came anyway.

"After the tears stopped, I certainly felt pride," Leonard said. "This is something that even as we've gotten into this, it still knocks me for a loop. It's just so incredible to me."

Perhaps Stephen's stage debut will spark a ballet career. The Joffrey already has invited him to accompany the Nutcracker troupe to Washington, D.C., where the ballet production will be performed in December at the Kennedy Center.

Correspondent Lisa Price contributed to this report.


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